English fiction in Asia: The greatest development in past half century

English fiction in Asia: The greatest development in past half century

Plus a guide to the Hong Kong International Literary Festival 2011

The Hong Kong International Literary Festival (HKILF) will begin its 11th annual run on March 8 with over 40 English-language events and visits from prize-winning novelists, journalists, historians, autobiographers and poets.

The festival unfolds amid rising international interest in literature from Asia, after the shortlist for this year’s Man Asian Literary Prize, announced in Hong Kong on February 15, was acclaimed as the award’s strongest line-up yet. 

Douglas Kerr, chairman of the board for the HKILF and professor of English at Hong Kong University, says that Asian writing in English is “The greatest development in English literature of the last 50 years.”

He believes there may be more exciting English writing going on outside of Anglo-America than inside.

Kerr cites Indian author Amtiav Ghosh as one Asian writer who is on par with Western writers, indeed, he is “one of the best writers in the world.”

Ghosh will be in Hong Kong for the festival and himself acknowledges how far English writing has come in this part of the world.

“I think much of the most interesting work in English today is being done in Asia,” says Ghosh. “This was not the case 10 years ago.”

As well as providing a platform for writers from across the region, the HKILF aims to connect readers with literary figures from around the world.

Andrew Motion, who completed a decade as Britain’s Poet Laureate in 2009, heads the roster of international authors who will speak at events ranging from lectures and readings to poetry performances and panel discussions.

“As a world city, Hong Kong deserves an international culture, and the literary festival is part of that,” Kerr explains.

Compared to similar events on the mainland and across the region, however, the HKILF is ambitious but small. “It’s a fairly seat-of-the-pants organization,” Kerr admits.

hong kong international literary festivalAmitav Ghosh.Jaipur’s annual Literary Festival is Asia’s largest such event, and while Hong Kong’s equivalent may not be as high-profile, it could face similar criticism over its choice of participants.

Controversy erupted in Jaipur earlier this year when journalist Hartosh Singh Bal claimed the event only matters because of the talent it attracts from the West.

Kerr believes that in multicultural, post-colonial societies like Hong Kong and India, debate about the balance between artistic independence and a cosmopolitan identity will always exist.

However, he says, “I don’t see [our selection of writers] as a controversial issue. As an English language festival with an Asian orientation, there is room in our program for all kinds.” 

Festival Highlights (in alphabetical order)

Amtiav Ghosh The Indian author of The Glass Palace and The Shadow Lines will discuss his trilogy of novels set at the time of the Opium Wars. The first installment, Sea of Poppies, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2008. The second book will be released in June. Events: March 12 (1.30 p.m.), March 13 (10.30 a.m., 12.30 p.m.), March 14 (5 p.m.)

Andrew Motion The former British Poet Laureate, novelist, critic and teacher will lecture on the place of poetry in the national culture and read from his recent collections of verse, The Cinder Path (2009) and Laurels and Donkeys (2010). The latter is a series of war poems dedicated to 20th and 21st century conflicts involving British forces. Motion's participation at the Festival is courtesy of the University of Hong Kong. Events: March 10 (5.30pm), March 11 (6.15pm)

Benjamin Zephaniah The British-Jamaican Rastafarian dub poet will fuse performance, rap and poetry over two shows at the festival. Zephaniah was named one of Britain’s top 50 post-war writers by the London Times, despite having left school at 13 illiterate. Events: March 13 (4.30pm, 6.15pm)

hong kong international literary festivalBenjamin Zephaniah.Constance Briscoe Briscoe is one of Britain’s first black female judges. Her 2006 memoir, Ugly, reached number one on the UK’s bestseller lists and tells of a childhood lived at the mercy of her physically and emotionally abusive mother. She will discuss her follow up book, Beyond Ugly (2008). Events: March 13 (6pm)

Emma Donaghue The Dublin-born author will discuss her novel Room, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2010 and continues to scale bestseller lists worldwide. Inspired by the Josef Fritzl case, it tells the story of a boy who lives with his mother in a locked room. Events: March 11 (7pm)

Evelyn Lau The Canadian poet left home at 14 and survived on the streets of Vancouver as a prostitute and drug addict. Her diary of the experience was published in 1989 as Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid and made into a CBC movie. Lau will read from her latest collection of poems, Living under Plastic (2010). Events: March 13 (3.30pm)

hong kong international literary festivalJessica Rudd The daughter of Kevin Rudd, former Prime Minister of Australia, will discuss her debut novel Campaign Ruby. The book was released last year and involves an Australian Prime Minister who is ousted by a female colleague. It caused a stir when the real-life coup that put Julia Gillard in office made Rudd’s story seem eerily prescient. Her appearance adds chick-lit to the festival for the first time in 11 years. Events: March 16 (6.15pm), March 18 (3.30pm)   

Jonathan Watts The award-winning journalist will talk about his first book, When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save the World or Destroy it (2010), which examines the impact of China’s rapid growth on the environment. He will also join correspondents Peter Hessler and Frank Ching in a panel discussion about journalism in contemporary China. Events: March 7 (7.30pm), March 9 (12pm), March 10 (7.30pm)

hong kong international literary festivalXu Xi The Tsim Sha Tsui native and one of Hong Kong’s most successful literary talents will talk about her latest book, Habit of a Foreign Sky (2010). Shortlisted for the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize, it is a story that examines what it means to be a woman in the modern world. Events: March 13 (6pm), March 15 (7.30pm) Man Asian Literary Prize 2010

Man Asian Literary Prize Shortlisted authors Bi Feiyu, Manu Joseph, Tabish Khair, Kenzaburo Oe and Yoko Ogawa will read from their books at a special event at the Kee Club on March 16. The novels, which range from dark love story to post-colonial fantasy, were selected by a panel of judges chaired by Brick Lane author Monica Ali. The Prize winner will be announced in Hong Kong on March 17.

For up to date venue and program information visit www.festival.org.hk. Tickets from Cityline.

Samantha Leese is a Hong Kong based writer and editor, focusing on travel, arts and culture. Her articles have been published internationally by titles such as Condé Nast Traveller, The Spectator, Artforum and Time.

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